Playing Conditions and Maintenance Budgets – What’s the Right Mix?

As part of an appraisal assignment, last week I had the opportunity to play at a private club in the upper Midwest US sporting fescue fairways.  The course is (deservedly) ranked on at least one “Top 100” list and despite the less than emerald green color of the fairways I found playing conditions to be superb despite a maintenance budget less than half of that often spent at similar clubs.  Combined with our penchant for expensive trips to Scotland to play on browned out golf courses and the general economic distress of so many golf courses, I wondered about the impact on economics and value of alternative turfgrass varieties for the majority of golf courses.

Of course, not all climates can support fescue fairways (or greens) but “Augusta Syndrome” as the desire for emerald green golf courses is known costs money.  Are there alternatives to the wall to wall bentgrass we enjoy in many parts of the country?  A recent study by Jon Last of Sports & Leisure Research published in “By Design” showed some interesting (but not surprising) results.

Focusing on private club players, following are some selected observations:

  • Condition of putting greens was the leading factor in golf course satisfaction (97%), followed closely by overall conditions (94%).
  • Condition of fairways was among the top 3 for 76% of respondents.
  • In the survey of “conditioning priorities”, well maintained tees and fairways were among the top 3 priorities for 84% of golfers.
  • “Firm and fast” fairways were important to 66%.
  • Among factors important to triggering a renovation, the cost of the project was a priority to 73% of respondents.
  • Among factors important to triggering a renovation, reducing maintenance costs a priority to 65%

So, it’s clear from this study that playing conditions are the top priority, but that to many ongoing costs are of significant importance.  What are the options?

A brief discussion with a prominent agronomist revealed that while fescue may not be the answer in warmer climates, there are alternatives for the “transition” zones that encompass large areas of the country like the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and others.  Earlier this month, we all watched a most successful PGA Championship at Bellerive in St. Louis on Zoysia fairways.  My agronomist friend suggests that while each situation is different, maintenance costs might be reduced by somewhere between 20% and 35% by using one of the more heat resistant turfgrass varieties that require less mowing, less water and less chemical treatment.  The economics are pretty simple.

If a course spends $1 million per year on maintenance and saves, say $250,000, all other things being equal a value increase of more than $2 million is realized.  Of course, there’s a cost to this and it has been estimated that the payback period is typically 4-5 years for zoysia and where possible, less for fescue which can be sprigged whereas zoysia requires sodding.  The economics are clear.  After the payback, a course saving $250,000 per year would be worth an additional $2 million +.

The question that is raised is whether the golfing consumer would accept something other than bentgrass fairways.  Do fairways need to be emerald green?  Though the economic argument is presumably significant enough, there is also the environmental argument.  Water is not an unlimited resource and chemicals used on golf courses have an environmental impact.  Golfers will need to be educated, but it’s my opinion that either reduced green fees/membership dues resulting from lower maintenance costs will make golf more attractive to more people.  Further, it’s been my personal experience that the playing conditions on fescue and zoysia fairways are certainly as desirable, providing for either more roll and longer tee shots, better (more teed up) lies that are easier to hit from or both.

The USGA and many others have been researching the use of more heat tolerant turfgrass varieties that use less water and chemicals.  It’s the wave of the future in golf and the economics require that we learn to be more efficient so more can enjoy the game.